Standing in the middle of my boss’s office, I began to blush. He was sitting at his desk and discussing the quantity and quality of his digital pornography folder. Amused at my obvious discomfort, he made it his personal mission to push the limits—as an experiment, you understand—of what would and wouldn’t make me blush. The business, his and his father’s, employed four other women—all of whom were at least 30 years my senior—didn’t have an HR department to speak of, and ran their business like a boys’ club. Though I was often uncomfortable—my good looks (according to the owner, my boss’s father) were often noted with leers—I never considered my experience sexual harassment.
I wish I could say I eventually realized what was happening and did something brave, but I didn’t. One memory, in particular, has stayed with me despite having quit over two years ago. All of us—the five women, son and father—were sitting in the conference room, when the son began to recount a semi-recent prank he was particularly proud of: he faked months’ worth of sexual texts between himself and his friend’s underage daughter then confronted his friend with the “evidence” of their trysts. I began to blush, of course, which was soon loudly mentioned by one of the other women. Everyone turned to me and asked me what I thought of his prank, so in the lightest manner I could conjure, I said, “I think that’s pretty horrible.”
In light of the sex scandals of continue to pour out, a movement has happened. Victims of sexual assault—women and men—are speaking up and saying, “Me, too.”
I’ve never been raped or molested, thankfully. How have I been so lucky? Especially considering these statistics:
According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 1 in 5 women will be raped at some point in their lives. The National Women’s Law Center reports that a quarter of all women surveyed have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, adding that 70-90% of them did not make a formal complaint.
Sexual assault is not ambiguous, so why could I not see that I have been a victim—though not of a heinous, violent crime but a victim, nonetheless? No, sexual assault shouldn’t be ambiguous, but there is a definite misunderstanding of what it is.
On more than one occasion in my life, men have grabbed my ass. In public. In crowds. By strangers and seemingly phantom hands. And I was mortified and ashamed. It ruined my day, to say the least, but I brushed it off as the price you pay for being in public. After all it’s just a stranger touching my butt (not my breasts or worse), and I felt too embarrassed to say something, especially in cases where I had no idea who the perpetrator was. It wasn’t rape, so I felt like I had no reason to complain. No one crossed that line.
My first dalliance with sexual assault happened when I was 12 years old. At my junior high school, lunch period was not a break. We had assigned seats, were supervised by two policemen and a few teachers, and dealt with very strict rules—no bathroom breaks, no talking while in line, and no going to the trashcan until lunch was over. None of these regulations, however, hindered our vice principal from coming into the room and massaging the girls’ shoulders. When he came in, every girl would tense. Never knowing who was going to catch his attention at any moment, we all tried to look as small as possible and focused on our food. Invisibility was the only escape.
We were all uncomfortable, but we made light of his touching. We joked in the halls and bathrooms about it, but every day at lunch, we all braced and hoped to God it wasn’t our turn. Despite being in a room full of adults, rules, and actual policemen, a man got away with rubbing 12 and 13-year-old girls’ shoulders. It was the only unspoken rule of our highly regulated lunch period: the vice principal will massage you, there’s nothing to be done about it, and no one can or will help.
That is what sexual assault looks like. Power begetting inappropriate behavior while witnesses look away. None of my brushes with sexual violence assault and harassment have resulted in punishment or even acknowledgment from my perpetrators. It enrages me that so many voices can join the fray and say, “Me, too,” but if it brings power back to victims, then maybe there’s hope for change.